One inmate's story of how the jail guards tried to kill prisoners
It was the bloodiest battle the prison had seen and the escape siren struck fear into the hearts of San Francisco Bay
The escape siren wailed across San Francisco Bay, striking fear into every heart on the mainland.
The unthinkable had happened – a prison break at the “inescapable” island fortress of Alcatraz, where America’s most dangerous criminals were caged.
At 1.30 pm on May 2, 1946, a gang of five inmates led by bank robber Bernard Coy ambushed a guard, stole his keys and, armed with a rifle and a pistol, made a bloody bid for freedom from The Rock.
The 46-hour siege that followed became known as the Battle of Alcatraz and ended only when the government sent in the Navy and the Marines.
Two guards and three escapees were killed in the savage jail break. Another 18 guards and a prisoner were injured.
But newly published memoirs of Jim Quillen, one of 26 convicts caught in the crossfire, claim the toll could easily have been higher as guards indiscriminately threw grenades to kill as many inmates as possible.
Killed: The bodies of the three escapees (Bernard Coy, Joseph Cretzer and Marvin Hubbard) who were killed during the Battle Of Alcatraz
Quillen said they were unprepared for the “savage, all-out attempt to spill convict blood. We lay on the floor behind our mattresses and could hear the bullets thud into them".
Warden Johnston showed members of the press the cells where the officers were held hostage and then later shot.
Correctional Officers on the catwalk outside of D-Block during the Battle of Alcatraz
Bernard Paul Coy
Joseph Paul Cretzer
Clarence Victor Carnes
A telegram from McNeil Island (Federal Penitentiary) advising the Bureau of Prisons Director James Bennett the intent to send mutual aid services to assist in gaining back control during the 1946 events.
Officers with the dead bodies of Joseph "Dutch" Cretzer, Bernand Coy and Marvin Hubbard aboard the deck of the Warden Johnston at the Van Ness Street Pier.
The West End Gun Gallery where Bernard Coy climbed and using a bar spreader and grease, was able to slip between the bent bars and into the gallery to overpower the officer and secure firearms.
“The bullets started fires in several of the mattresses. It was difficult to breathe because of the smoke and tear gas. We lay there for hours, praying we’d not get hit.”
He said guards saw the break as the perfect chance to get rid of “incorrigible prisoners” and to “avenge old insults and injuries” with no repercussions.
Reformed: Jim Quillen mug shot at Alcatraz
Reformed robber Quillen would live to earn a Presidential pardon and became a popular guide at Alcatraz after The Rock became a tourist attraction.
A runaway from a broken home in California, whose mother tried to gas him to death as he slept, he was jailed several times before he was 20 and sent to The Rock aged 22.
At the time of the break Quillen was in the disciplinary unit, alongside Birdman of Alcatraz Robert Stroud, for trying to tunnel under walls from the prison bakery.
Quillen and several fellow inmates could have joined Coy but realised the escape plan was suicidal and decided to return to their cells. But Quillen understood their motives.
The Rock: Aerial view of Alcatraz
He said: “This escape plot was one of the most vicious and bloody ever seen in the US penal system".
"These men were resolved to escape or die. They couldn’t endure incarceration in Alcatraz. They erupted like an exploding volcano.”
The breakout began when Coy and fellow escapee Marvin Hubbard overpowered a guard and stole his keys.
The violent escape attempt known as the Battle of Alcatraz. Two correctional officers and three inmates would be killed during this escape. In this photo, officers scale the exterior of the main cellhouse attempting to fire at inmates who had taken officers as hostages.
They then freed other prisoners, including murderer Joe Cretzer and two kidnappers, Miran Thompson and Clarence Carnes.
Coy broke into the gun gallery and stole two firearms, which he used to take four guards hostage and lock in a cell.
But their plan fell apart when the alarm sounded and the Navy went in.
As the gang’s final hope of escape disappeared, Cretzer shot all four guards in a fit of rage, fatally injuring one.
But it was the death of another guard, Harold Stites, that sparked an all-out assault on D Block, where Quillen was held, as his colleagues sought vengeance.
Quillen insists that Stites was not killed by the inmates but by another guard, who was drunk, by mistake.
Soon the guards began shelling the jail block with grenades.
At first the prisoners thought they were trying to blast their way in, but Quillen said they soon realised the attackers were targeting individuals.
Quillen said: “A voice would call out, asking for a certain individual and demanding that we surrender the rifle".
"It didn’t take us long to realise that answering only served to bring down a full-scale assault on the speaker.”
The cell next to Quillen’s took a direct hit from a grenade, through the barred window, and the inmate, knocked unconscious and deafened, survived only because he was hiding behind his mattress and a pile of books.
Quillen said: “The explosion rocked the entire tier, fire belched from his cell and the walls bowed. We were overwhelmed with fear.”
By mid afternoon on May 4 the shelling stopped and Coy, Cretzer and Hubbard were all dead, their bodies riddled with bullets.
Thompson was caught and sent to the gas chamber at San Quentin jail. Carnes got an additional life sentence.
The Battle of Alcatraz claimed one last life.
Bank robber Sam Shockley, 39, with a mental age of a child, was convicted of aiding the escapees despite court testaments to the contrary from Quillen and Stroud.
He pleaded insanity but was sent to the gas chamber on December 3, 1948.
Reformed character: Jim Quillen with his wife Leone, who he met after his release from prison
Quillen said: “Executing Sam was the equivalent to killing a mentally-ill child.
"His execution was a travesty of justice. I believe he was a victim of the break, not a co-conspirator".
"I think it was an attempt to magnify the number of inmates involved and divert attention from the fact the ‘impregnable’ security of Alcatraz had been penetrated.”
He said if the bosses had been less concerned about reputation and prestige the entire episode could have been handled in a low-key manner.
Thompson and Shockley were executed sitting side-by-side in San Quentin's Gas Chamber on December 3, 1948.
Quillen was moved to San Quentin prison in 1952.
After his release he married his wife Leone in 1963, had a daughter called Lori and two granddaughters.
He died in1998 but his newly published book ensures his memories of life in Alcatraz did not die with him.